1992's Streets of Rage 2 isn't simply one of the best Mega Drive games of all time. It also had—has—one of the greatest soundtracks of the 16-bit console era. SEGA's side-scrolling fighter, the sequel to the company's original cooperative brawler of a year earlier, was largely accompanied by the music of Yuzo Koshiro. Twenty-five at the time of the game's release, Koshiro's work had been heard on preceding titles like action-platformer ActRaiser on the SNES, the Game Gear-specific version of Shinobi, and the first Streets of Rage. But SoR2 was something else.
Apparently arranged using an NEC PC-8801 and a personalized twist on BASIC, Music Macro Language, Koshiro's contributions to Streets of Rage 2 were hugely influential. He was responsible for all but three tracks on the game—said trio coming from Motohiro Kawashima—and contemporary artists and producers like Ikonika, Labrinth, Joker, and Just Blaze have cited him as an essential influence on their work. But that doesn't mean everyone with dance music in the blood has actually heard his stuff.
Angus Harrison is staff writer at VICE, Thump, and Noisey in the UK. He's pretty much a walking, talking encyclopedia of electronic beats and breaks. But ahead of me sitting him down to listen to the soundtrack to Streets of Rage 2—it's receiving a beautiful double-vinyl release through London's Data Discs in April (it has previously released the soundtracks to Super Hang-On and Shenmue, among others)—he'd only known Kushiro through reputation alone.
"I know of Koshiro because of his links to club music, though even then my knowledge is quite vague," Angus tells me, as we sneak away to a corner of the VICE office for a listen. "I know that he's someone who brought textures and sounds of club music, especially 1980s club music, into video games soundtracks." I figure it's best to begin at the beginning.
Mike Diver: Let me play you "Go Straight." This is the music from the first level of the game. I'm putting you on the spot a bit here, but what does this remind you of, maybe, from a more contemporary perspective?
Angus Harrison: So that's the start of the game? Jesus. I'm struck by just how direct it is. It's like a big acid house tune. I was expecting something that used instrumentation or structures from club music—but that is basically a fast and hard acid house track. Stuff like Vamp's "Outlander" is an older tune that's pretty similar, in terms of its pace and the tone it sets. In terms of artists making music like that today, I mean, it'd be people making deliberately throwback stuff.
Well, this game came out in 1992, and even then Kushiro was using some pretty dated gear—he wrote most of this soundtrack, I'm led to believe, on a PC-8801, which the internet tells me was first introduced to the Japanese market in 1981. I'm sure he used a later model, but all the same—he wasn't quite "with the times" when making this music.
I think an interesting thing to me, which might be overanalyzing things, is the juxtaposition of the music of that era being tied to this sense of communality and love—all around the arrival of ecstasy—and it being put under this game of fighting, this violent experience. But then, it kind of makes sense, because that beat is so aggressive.
The game was made in Japan, but actually came out in the States before anywhere else. Do you feel this sounds like a Japanese artist's take on the sounds coming out of the clubs of the West?
I can see how it might be, though I'm aware that those sort of sounds weren't really reaching Japan at all. Well, that's simplifying things—they were, but not in any kind of comprehensive way. I think you'd probably have to go to where that music was being made to get it. You'd have to physically leave Japan to experience a house or techno scene in a fundamental sense. But, that being said, you can hear this strange conglomeration of different things in the track. It feels totally natural, but there are shades of Detroit techno coming through. There's also this Manchester, Hacienda–type acid house.
I'll play another one. See what you make of this. It's "Dreamer," which comes quite early on in the game still.
This is really interesting. On the one hand, those piano chords are very house; that's like a foundation of house. But a lot of the other stuff going on, that synth melody for example, that's kind of like what some Glaswegian producers have been making in just the last five years—like Rustie and Hudson Mohawke. And I guess by extension, that's bled into the whole PC Music scene, with this high-octane, often slightly tacky-sounding, sugary music.
Because this was designed for a video game, and not to be played out on stereos, you have compression—but that's a quality that a lot of producers now are putting into their work, deliberately. I think you can definitely hear some of this in Rustie's recent stuff. He's maybe stepping more into happy hardcore territories, but he has these very spacey passages. His music is more amped-up, but it has that same deliberate tackiness—and I use tacky in a positive way.
Cool. Let's try "Slow Moon."
See, this feels like a bridge between disco and house. That slower pace, and the way the bass line is walking, I feel that if that was a full production, made today, it'd have more live instruments and probably a string section. It's got that luxurious sound—it's warmer than what I've heard before.
It's a bit like the early stuff Frankie Knuckles was doing, taking disco and producing this fuller, but still driven sound. It's a little like the dance music you'd hear in France just before Daft Punk came out, like a form of garage—not UK garage, but in terms of Brooklyn's Paradise Garage, like what Larry Levan was DJing there. That, to me, sounds like it's a huge-sounding record restricted by the equipment he had at the time, and the medium he was writing the music for.
From what you've heard so far, would you guess that Koshiro had a pretty decent record collection at the time of writing this music?
Definitely. To me, he sounds like someone who's… Well, he's really tapping into all of electronic and dance music, at once. And this soundtrack is like being hit by a wall of that, because it's not specifically attached to one scene. There are so many shades of basically all of what was going on in several different places at that time, which I find really interesting. That definitely suggests he had a pretty wide selection of records.
OK, I'll throw on a couple more, starting with "Under Logic."
This is a classic, like, hands-in-the-air screamer. I'm amazed at the sound he's achieved, how full it is. I know I said earlier that he's restricted, but this really isn't, it's totally full on.
The last track I'm going to play is a boss theme, actually. It's called "Revenge of Mr. X." It actually plays right at the end of the game, when you face off against the final boss, who's obviously called Mr. X.
This has a lot more layers to it than what my head says there should be in an early 1990s video game. I know that electronic music and video games are closely linked, but I always thought that composers for games were just using, like, interesting synthesizers from the dance world. I didn't realize that anyone was making full-on dance tracks for a video game. Because that's basically what these are. This one has a real Detroit techno feeling to it.
Streets of Rage 2 is a game with very few guns in it. Actually, I think the only one in the whole game, in terms of one that fires bullets, is used by Mr. X as this track plays. Does the track maybe capture that—does it feel slightly, I guess, mechanical? And deadly?
There is that sense of extra threat to it. I think it's interesting that, for music like techno and house, the capacity for interpretation is so diverse. It's music to be played in dark anonymous spaces, by anonymous people. So you have that shut-off with the visuals—but you make your own visuals. And you telling me this is a boss track, of course it is. Of course, he's unleashing hell.
The game is beatable in an hour, or not much more. Do you think its short duration helps the soundtrack have this legacy, because it's almost album length? Not one track ever outstayed its welcome—unless you really, really sucked.
I can see how that would be the case. With a collection of tracks like this, it's advantageous that it all sits together quite coherently. The connection you form between the music playing and what you see on the screen, that must also help the game's legacy. Having heard this particular track, like, you know where that is in the game. And that, to me, says a lot about what impact this music has on the legacy of the whole game. Because it must make other people nostalgic for it, and immediately remember what level that certain track is from.
There might be a clear comparison to draw here between the gaming experience and the clubbing experience. If you try to explain gaming to outsiders, they might just think it's sitting in front of a screen, pressing some buttons. Clubbing might seem like standing in the dark, dancing to repetitive music. But there's a similarity between them, where the repetitiveness isn't about one singular moment, but finding an experience within a pattern. It doesn't surprise me that music works so well with video games. Clubbing and gaming are both about dedicating time, and finding that experience for yourself.
Do you think you could slip one of these tracks into a set today and get away with it?
I think you could totally get away with it. I reckon if you were playing a big room, doing a house set, and you dropped "Under Logic," the crowd would go wild. With that break, there's no way people wouldn't have their tops off.
Find more information on Data Discs' Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack release, expected out in April, at the label's official website, here.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.